Florida’s Hard Road to Success Outside the Major Party System
DO THINGS REALLY CHANGE?
With Governor Charlie Crist pondering a bid for U.S. Senate as a No Party Affiliation candidate, now seems like a good time to take a look back at the history of third party and independent candidates in Florida.
Excluding the seemingly miraculous election of ex-Baptist minister Sidney J. Catts, the colorful “Cracker Messiah” who was swept into the governor’s mansion on the tiny Prohibition Party ticket in 1916, voters in the Sunshine State have never been particularly friendly to statewide candidates running outside the traditional “two-party system.”
For most of the twentieth century, Florida’s legislature proved even more hostile than the voters, making it virtually impossible for independent or third-party candidates to appear on the statewide ballot for any office other than president. Incredibly, between 1924 and 1998 — the year Florida citizens overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment wiping out the state’s mandatory petition requirements and making ballot access considerably easier for minor parties and independent candidates — only one third-party candidate appeared on the Florida ballot in a gubernatorial or senatorial contest.
That little-remembered candidate was John L. Grady, a physician and the former mayor of Belle Glade who waged a seemingly quixotic campaign for the U.S. Senate on the American Party ticket during the Watergate year of 1974.
Grady’s uphill candidacy for the seat vacated by indicted Republican Sen. Edward J. Gurney, a staunch Nixon defender, was nothing short of astounding, beginning with the Herculean task of obtaining 105,000 valid signatures on the party’s petitions.
Remarkably, the American Party — an ultraconservative offshoot of George C. Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign — collected more than 130,000 signatures to earn a spot on the ballot that year.
Though unable to keep pace with the fundraising prowess of Democrat Richard Stone and the deep pockets of drugstore multimillionaire Jack Eckerd, the Republican nominee, the 43-year-old former mayor of the small, poverty-stricken town of Belle Glade made up for his lack of resources by waging a breathtakingly vigorous campaign, stumping in every region of the state. He carried rural Hardee and Hendry counties and finished ahead of one of his major-party rivals in more than a dozen others while garnering 282,659 votes, or nearly 16 percent — enough, some believed, to cost the GOP the election.
Grady’s spectacular effort notwithstanding, one of the most potentially viable independent campaigns during that period might have been one that was never waged — the short-lived U.S. Senate candidacy of former state Senator Lori Wilson of Cocoa Beach in 1980.
A dynamic and popular vote-getter who had twice defeated Democratic and Republican opposition in the early 1970s to become the only independent ever elected to the Florida Senate, Wilson’s marriage to millionaire publisher and USA Today founder Al Neuharth presumably put her in a position to self-finance at least a modest statewide effort in 1980. “We’ll spend what we can afford to spend,” she said.
A former Republican, Wilson was the only person to win a seat in the Florida legislature outside the traditional two-party structure since 1908, when the Socialist Party’s C. C. Allen, a St. Petersburg lawyer, was reelected to a second term.
Running as an independent, Lori Wilson, herself a Merritt Island lawyer and ex-Brevard County commissioner, defeated three rivals in a 1972 special election to win a seat in the State Senate, becoming the only woman in that chamber. Defeating challengers from both major parties, she was reelected to a full four-year term in 1974.
Unfortunately, Wilson’s U.S. Senate campaign lasted only a few months. She gave up the ghost shortly after failing to overturn a state requirement that an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate needed three times as many signatures as an independent presidential candidate. In dropping out of the race, the former Cocoa Beach legislator conceded that it was impossible to obtain the 126,516 signatures necessary to place her name on the November ballot. Florida’s draconian ballot access laws, she said in a parting shot, denied “freedom of choice” to the voters while favoring the established parties.
While the state’s burdensome ballot access barriers were effectively removed with the passage of Revision Eleven in 1998, recent history shows that Floridians generally continue turn a cold shoulder to candidates who dare to venture outside the traditional parties in major statewide races.
Ten years ago, state Rep. Willie F. Logan of Miami-Dade, named by the Miami Herald as one of the legislature’s most effective members only a few years earlier, tried his luck at cracking Florida’s duopoly, but fared poorly.
A rising star in state Democratic politics, the 43-year-old Logan had been his party’s designated Speaker of the House — the first African-American tapped for that powerful post since Reconstruction — before being unceremoniously dumped from his leadership position by his party’s caucus in January 1998 in favor of Anne Mackenzie, a veteran white legislator from Fort Lauderdale. Logan’s supporters claimed that his ouster was racially motivated — a charge vehemently denied by Democratic leaders.
Logan, who represented one of the state’s poorest districts during his eighteen years in the Florida House, didn’t take kindly to being ambushed by his fellow Democratic lawmakers and boldly displayed his displeasure by endorsing Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush against his own party’s Buddy MacKay later that year.
The longtime lawmaker, who had been elected mayor of Opa-Locka when he was barely 23, apparently harbored a bull-sized taste for revenge. In the fall of 1999, he formally threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate and within a few months had raised nearly $200,000 — an auspicious beginning for a candidate running outside the bounds of the traditional parties.
Taking his cue from Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura, Logan hired Bill Hillsman, the brilliant Minneapolis media consultant who had produced the hilariously offbeat television ads that catapulted the colorful Reform Party candidate past his major-party rivals and into the governor’s office in 1998. Hillsman believed he had another winner. “Willie is so far ahead of where Gov. Ventura was at this point in 1998 that it’s hard to even make the comparison,” he said early in the campaign.
Logan, who eventually spent $364,554 on his long-shot candidacy, also took a page from the “Walkin’ Lawton” playbook, but instead of walking 1,000 miles across the state he donned a helmet and hopped on a motorcycle. Logan’s gimmickry seemed appropriate given the fact that he was running for the same U.S. Senate seat in which the late Lawton Chiles, clad in dusty boots with holes in the soles, had made his legendary 1,003-mile trek across Florida three decades earlier.
Crisscrossing the state on a Yamaha motorcycle, it wasn’t long before the African-American legislator was polling double-digits in Florida’s hotly-contested U.S. Senate race. In early March, the prestigious Florida Poll showed Logan garnering 10 percent of the vote against his likely major-party opponents in November.
Logan’s unexpected inclusion in the final statewide televised debate between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Bill McCollum led many pundits to believe that the free-spirited state representative would be a major factor in the election’s outcome. He thought so, too.
“This is America. I can win,” he confidently declared.
On Election Day, Logan, who had consistently polled between 5 and 10 percent of the vote in statewide surveys, ran worse than anyone imagined, garnering a disappointing 80,820 votes, or 1.4 percent.
Four years ago, Florida’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections attracted an abundance of independent and minor-party hopefuls — eight in all — including the Reform Party’s Max Linn, a Treasure Island financial planner who reportedly spent close to two million dollars of his nearly $16-million fortune while polling a relatively meager 1.9 percent in a bid for the state’s highest office.
It remains to be seen if Floridians will continue their nearly century-long indifference to candidates outside the traditional parties.
Then again, as Gov. Crist said recently, “Things change.”
Read more about third party politics on Darcy's blog Uncovered Politics.